Imagine, if you will, that one marriage you know that seems absolutely miserable and dysfunctional, the one that seems like it should have ended years ago, and nobody understands why it hasn't yet. And yet the participants are obviously committed to each with the ferocity of a rabid dog, making it clear by this point that if they haven't split up ten times over by now, they'll be together until the end of days. We all know that couple; and that couple is at the center of Cutie and the Boxer, a documentary about a fascinating and horrifying pair of human beings that feints at being a study of how artists live their lives. But really, it's not that at all; it is a very close and at times very uncomfortably intimate domestic drama that suggests, among other things, the terribly unstable mental place one must reach in order to want to be an artist in the first place.

The couple in question are Ushio and Noriko Shinohara. They met in the early 1970s, when Ushio was a struggling avant-garde artist who'd recently set himself up in New York; Noriko, an aspiring artist brand new to the United States, was quickly swept away by the authority and grandeur of the Real Artist in front of her, making representational sculptures from discarded objects and trash as a commentary on the artistic process itself. They fell in love, moved in together, and before a year had passed, Noriko was pregnant; and from that day till this, it seems from the film's evidence, there has been a bristling, rancorous division between them.

Director Zachary Heinzerling firmly associates himself with Noriko's perspective, not from any apparent motivation than that of an intuitive documentarian who knows where the story is coming from: Noriko, possessing clear artistic ambitions of her own, was rather quickly subordinated to the status of housekeeper, agent, manager, chef, and nanny, never getting an opportunity to express herself in the way she'd hoped for when she met up with Ushio in the first place. For his part, Ushio is a bit of a train-wreck all told: addicted to alcohol, incapable of handling money in any sensible way, prone to bold artistic gestures full of self-righteousness that would be somewhat dubiously admirable in an ambitious twentysomething, but are vaguely awful in a man of 80. But even though Noriko feels compressed and artistically silenced by a very lopsided marriage, she gives as good as she gets, sniping and pushing back with sometimes wicked candor.

The film is not about how the Shinoharas are miserable wretches. It is, in a rather more complex and interesting way, about how they're actually quite a successful pair of old marrieds: how, in fact, they completely rely upon each other. I do not know if the film necessarily does a great job of actually demonstrating that Noriko is better off with Ushio than without him: if there are benefits to her besides habit, comfort, and familiarity, they are buried well indeed. But that, to an extent, is exactly the point the film is arguing: habit, comfort, and familiarity are not terrible things, particularly when they can be nudged aside to accommodate a certain degree of flexibility.

Which is exactly what happens. Inasmuch as the film has a narrative - it emerges slowly, after a full third of the movie has been about nothing else than capturing the couple's dynamic - it's about Noriko finally taking decisive action to make her own work of art after all these decades. This takes the form of a series of autobiographical paintings in something like comic book form that recasts her marriage through two cartoon characters named Cutie and Bullie (the "boxer" in the title is from Ushio's present method of painting: wrapping his hands in foam pads, dipping them in paint, and punching his way across a canvas. Thus do the two halves of the title give each member of the marriage a chance to speak for themselves). It's largely in the form of the Cutie narrative, animated in Flash or something like it, that the story of the Shinoharas' life together is related, along with some home movies and videos; thus it is that Noriko's perspective dominates, though given his brusque behavior and habitual drunkness, it's not clear that Ushio would be able or interested in telling his half of the story. At times, he seems almost pleased to know that his wife has been pissed off at him for their entire life together, and would perhaps endorse her version of events anyway.

The two sparring partners are remarkably comfortable in front of Heinzerling's camera, giving Cutie and the Boxer a casual closeness that is not by any means common in documentaries about people going through their lives, and this is beyond question the best thing the film has going for it. There's a natural desire to watch from the shadows as messy people go about the details of their even messier lives - at the time Heinzerling was filming, the Shinoharas were just about flat broke, and only a fortuitous gallery show that shows up in the film's back half kept them treading water - and by all means, this film is fairly terrific at that, while showcasing the ineffable mystery of love and companionship in a relaxed way that doesn't telegraph what it's doing in capital letters. I have to be honest though: however interesting the content is, watching people only takes you so far, and the very neutral tone the film adopts, alongside the generic aesthetic vocabulary, left me feeling a bit undernourished. It's not that every documentary biography has to adopt the warped and manipulative mentality of a Werner Herzog film; but at the same time, I don't think it would be an awful thing if more films did it.

The one word above all that suggests itself is "satisfying": it is a totally satisfying movie in all ways. But "satisfying" is not the same as, and is perhaps even in direct opposition to "exciting". By all means, Cutie and the Boxer treats its unique subjects with an admirable degree of frankness and clear-headed journalism. It just doesn't do anything else, and even after only 82 minutes, I found myself doubting that I had any more interest in these people or a desire to revisit their story, as presented here, for any conceivable reason.